Exit Through the Gift Shop, the first film directed by reclusive street-art legend Banksy, is a little puzzle-box of a documentary. It's perfectly designed and pitched to be enjoyable on multiple levels: on one as an entertaining, illuminating mini-history of "street art" and on another - one entirely more convoluted and entertaining - as a light-hearted "up yours" to both street artists and their patrons.
Ostensibly (to take the film's word for it) Banksy's film came about when he, as the premiere 21st Century graffiti art darling, was approached by Thierry Guetta, a French-born Los Angeleno. Guetta wanted to make a documentary about street art, and Banksy was the last major figure whose participation he felt he needed, as an affable personality, a love of video cameras and a chance relationship to Invader, a French street-art pioneer who networked with other artists like Shepard Fairey, had left Guetta with hundreds of hours of footage documenting the birth of the art.
After tracking Banksy down and shooting him working, Guetta retired to the cutting room. He emerged months later and showed it to Banksy. He didn't like the film, a couple of minutes of which are excerpted and are plainly terrible, and offered to take over Guetta's doc while Guetta returned to Los Angeles to turn himself into a street art sensation, named "Mr. Brainwash" or MBW. Transforming overnight from an affable, helpful documentarian to a one-man hype-monster artiste, MBW's enormous spraypaint cans, tv monsters and Warhol-style send-ups captured the attention of the LA art crowd, who spent over a million bucks on his stuff, much to the chagrin of Fairey and Banksy. Guetta's film about Banksy changes into Banksy's film about Guetta and street art, and the rise of a new unfortunate talent.
Except, as I and a lot of other folks believe, it's all made up. It's a hoax, it has to be, it's too hilariously perfect to be anything but. Banksy, as a street artist, has seen the perception of his works - by design temporary, and by design defacements - change from graffiti into art that needs preservation, that is cut out from walls and sold. Banksy, in making Exit Through the Gift Shop with Fairey and Guetta has found a way to deface, scrawl over and heap lighthearted disdain all over both himself and the people who snap up his art.
It's spectacular, it's brilliant and all the more so in that it's still a documentary, still a record of events. It's not artificial, not a mockumentary in the way that Spinal Tap is. MBW exists, having been created by Guetta or Banksy or both, and the film documents his arrival. Exactly who it is that arrives is the film's mystery.
Exit Through the Gift Shop captures the birth of a prank, an elaborate, entertaining gotcha that fits perfectly in Banksy's nose-tweaking, politically-aware, cheeky body of work. Moreover, the film doesn't rely on any rug-snapping-out to really work. It works if it's true, it works if it's not, because it's a construction that's above all entertaining. It's a glimpse, anyway, of a world that's built at night, by streetlight, one that's fascinating even if it is in the middle of pulling the wool over our eyes. It's genius, plain and (not so very much at all) simple.